Should you Force a Resistant Teen to See a Therapist?

There are lots of good reasons for tweens and teens to see a therapist. Your son or daughter may struggle with an issue, such as defiance, anxiety, depression, anger, self-harm, an eating disorder, high stress, trauma, family discord, and so much more. However, knowing that your teen would probably benefit from counseling, does not mean that your teen will want to go. What is a parent to do if their teen does not want to see a mental health professional?

Be careful how you introduce the subject. If you think your teen might need counseling, the way you bring up the subject is very important. The first conversation you have will likely set the tone for your teen’s attitude about therapy. Never imply your teen is crazy or that they’re not smart enough to make good choices. Instead, share why you think counseling is important and how it can be helpful. It may be good idea to frame therapists similar to a coach: even professional athletes need coaches to teach new strategies and skills to be successful. Explain how therapists are able to teach skills to cope with stress and manage emotions. Additionally, instead of focusing on your teen’s problems, remind them how important they are to you and how you want them to have a happy, successful future ahead of them. Ask for input from your teen and be willing to listen to your teen’s opinions. Try to build a sense that you are a team, facing this issue together.

Understand their concern. It’s pretty common for adolescents to not want to see a counselor. Stigma, fear, and a misunderstanding of how counseling works can be powerful motivators in avoiding therapy. Your teen might feel like it is an invasion of privacy. They may struggle with embarrassment or shame. It can feel too vulnerable or exhausting to discuss emotions. They might struggle with trusting adults or authority figures or worry that the therapist will share everything they say with you. Or your teen might not believe they need help. Either way, it’s important to understand why your child doesn’t want to speak to a therapist. Understanding the reasons your child has for being resistant will help you tailor how you respond. Teens might not always be the best judge of what they need, but it’s essential for parents to give them a chance to explain how they feel and then give a thoughtful response.

Talk to your teen’s doctor. No matter what your concern is, sometimes talking to your teen’s primary care physician is the best way to start. A doctor can assess your teen’s needs and help determine whether they would benefit from counseling. If they do believe that therapy is a good idea, a doctor can identify the most appropriate services and recommend good therapists for your child. Additionally, some teens who are not willing to listen to their parent’s recommendations about counseling might be more willing to listen to their doctor. Your child’s doctor may be able to explain how counseling works and how treatment could help them in a way that seems less threatening or embarrassing.

Discuss goals. If teens have no idea what therapy is supposed to do or how long it might last, then they can feel less interested in participating. It may be helpful to explore the goals and anticipated length of therapy. When discussing goals, you should focus, at least initially, on your teen’s priorities, not yours. You can achieve buy-in if your teen believes there is something in it for them.

Offer choices. Adolescence is all about developing independence, and teenagers almost always rebel when they feel like they have no say in a situation. As a result, it’s really important that you offer your teen some choices in therapy. For example:

  • Choice of therapist. Your teen should absolutely have final say in choosing a therapist. No matter how experienced and renowned a therapist may be, your child must feel that they can trust and connect with the therapist. Perhaps if your teen’s doctor made two recommendations, you could suggest you visit both of them (or at least look at their website) and your teen decide between them.
  • Choice of schedule. If your teen feels like they are missing out from other things, they will only become more resistant, so work with them to create a schedule that preserves their priorities.
  • Choice of topics. Let your teen know that therapy is for them and that they will get to determine what they discuss with their therapist.
  • Choice of format. Some teens who won’t speak to someone face-to-face will consider talking to a therapist online. While not every condition can be treated virtually, online appoinments might be a good option for your teen if it encourages their participation.

Compromise. If you truly try to force your teen to get treatment, they aren’t likely to productively discuss their issues or be motivated to change. As a result, don’t make therapy mandatory unless they are engaged in behavior that is hurtful to themselves or others. Instead, ask you teen to commit to attending appointments for just one month. After a month, you can discuss what they have learned and whether it’s a good idea to keep going. Usually, a skilled therapist can help a teen feel more comfortable about counseling after only a few sessions, so your teen might opt to continue even if they were initially resistant.

Final Thoughts…

If you see signs of a mental health issue in your teen, don’t hesitate to at least try therapy. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. A mental health professional can be very helpful in navigating life troubles or overwhelming emotions. Therapists and counselors are trained to help people discover inner strengths that help them heal. These inner strengths can then be used to cope with life’s other problems in a healthy way.

The best way to find a mental health provider is to obtain recommendations from your teen’s pediatrician, your family doctor, or some other local practitioner.

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